Graphic Novels, Comics, and Plays: An Interview with Artist Charlie Athanas

AQA: How did you get started creating the art you make now?

Charlie Athanas: I am currently writing and drawing a graphic novel. In the early 80’s I was doing some illustration, but I was primarily a musician playing synthesizers. I was composing soundtracks for a variety of grad students at the University of Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Lab who were using computers to animate short pieces for video. One of these students, JohnnieHorn, suggested that I learn to use the computer to animate a cartoon character I had called Ralph the Punk. With his help, we produced an award-winning video that garnered some attention. Around the same time, First Comics, a Chicago comic book publisher, was publishing Shatter, thefirst computer-generated comic book. The artist that created Shatter had quit after three issues and they were desperate to keep the book going.First’s art director, Alex Wald, was lamenting to a friend in a grocery store that they needed an artist who knew computers. She happened to be one of the EVL grad students I had been working with and knowing that I loved comic books, she recommended me. I had never owned a computer at the time, but I went in for an interview anyway. Alex had me do some sample pagelayouts using pen and paper and bring in some samples of computer-generated art that I had done. They liked the layouts, but First’s editor on Shatter didn’t believe I actually did the other work on a computer. It was a tough interview. I said, “If you give me the job, I’ll buy my own computer.” They took the bait; I bought a state of the art Apple Mac Plus (with 1MB of RAM and a mouse the size of a bar of soap) and entered the professional world of comic books and computer graphics.

AQA: What is your medium? Why did you choose it?

Charlie Athanas: The end product is almost always digital. When I started using computers in the 1980’s, producing illustrations and animations digitally was very new and exciting. These days, clients expect a digital end product to be delivered by the artist, so I have stuck with it.

AQA: Tell us about what you paint. (Subjects, styles, genre, impressionism vs., realism, etc.)

Charlie Athanas: Much of my latest work is has been 11″ x 17″ posters for live theater. It uses everything from pencil sketches to photographs in the design. I am now working on my own graphic novel.PD: Why?

The main goal is high impact, simple images that can be understood and enticing from across the street. I hope to apply the same line of thinking to storytelling with the graphic novel.

AQA: What kind of schooling did you take to get to this level of style?

Charlie Athanas: I have a 1978 BA in Fine Arts from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. The computer skills are self-taught.

AQA: Can you walk us through the steps you take to create a work?

Charlie Athanas: It starts with finding the essence of what I am trying to illustrate. For example, if it is a play poster, I read the script, brainstorm with the director, and seek out a key moment in the play. I try to find the moment that gives the viewer a sense of the particular production that they will see and hopefully find the image that will entice them to see it. Lots of quick, raw sketching with pencil and paper happens at this stage. If I’m stuck, I’ll sit down with the my morgue images and just start going through them, sometimes hundreds at a time, sketching ideas as I go. I also do a lot of walking around with a notebook. There is a lot of value in doing

There is a lot of value in doing anothertask, like just traveling from here to there, that frees up my mind to obscure alternatives that don’t come when I am focusing solely on the piece.Inspiration comes from pop culture, nature, and other artists. I have collected a massive morgue of reference material pulled from a variety of print sources. With the advent of digital photography and the Internet, the print references have gotten fewer, but I’ll still clip out a stunning or unique image when I see it. I ravenously look at other artist’s work, especially at the sketch stage to see how they’re problem solving.My work method has stayed consistent over the years. I use pencil and paper to sketch out the ideas and layout. For a part of the illustration that requires intricate draftsmanship I will also draw a pretty finished piece in pencil. I will then scan these drawings in.At this stage I will manipulate my scans in Photoshop and typically completely change the outcome of the piece.

I believe in allowing mistakes alter the work if it serves the piece. I think it is an acceptance that I will never master my tools to the point of complete dominance, so I let the tools collaborate with me. The mistakes also keep the process fresh and take the work in ways I would have never consciously thought of.If I need 3D pieces in the work, like landscapes, I will use Bryce. I am learning Maya for the same reasons.The finished piece comes after a lot of Photoshop manipulation, using manylayers.

AQA: How do you publicize your work?

Charlie Athanas: I have relied primarily on networking to get work, but I am now using Denise Dorman of WriteBrainMedia to help me get the word out.

AQA: What is the priciest work you’ve ever sold? (If you don’t mind.) Why did it sell for that price?

Charlie Athanas: As far as gallery sales are concerned, I sold a 3D Betty Page piece at Tony Fitzpatrick’s World Tattoo Gallery in Chicago for $1,000. In retrospect I probably could have sold it for more. It was part of a ‘Bad Girl’ art show with a lot of high profile artists and celebrities and opening night had brought out the collectors looking for this kind of work. I’m proud that it was the first piece to sell in the show.